Kraaia slid her arm beneath her and sat up on her elbow. She did not think she had dreamed the sound of her name. She had at least not dreamed the switch-​crack sound of a hushed scolding across the room, nor the tearful whimpering of a girl.

'Not since Saint Luke's!'

“Since Saint Luke’s! Godamighty! Well, get back outside and pee. Kraaia!”

“I already did,” the girl blubbered.

“Oh, you ’membered that, did you? Well, get in there, then. Kraaia!”

This time Ffraid whipped her head around, and Kraaia tossed off the blankets and sat up. The sniveling girl turned blindly towards the rustling she made in the straw. Kraaia was still safely cloaked in shadow, but the murky light on the girl’s unguarded face revealed sparkling traces of snot and tears.

“Come on, get up!” Ffraid commanded. Her voice was tense and low: a soft shout, so as not to wake the babies. But the others were all awake now: Kraaia and Gyth sitting up on their straw pallets, and Aelfie and Editha shivering anxiously in the depths of the big bed.

Kraaia breathed, “What?”

“Get up!” Ffraid ordered, making up for the softness of her voice with the ferocity of her scowl. The green light at her back crackled like swampfire in her coppery hair. “I need your help!”

Kraaia slid her legs out from beneath the blankets and swung her feet out over the floor. The frigid air shocked her calves, but the cold came slowly to her feet, seeping insensibly through flesh to sink into her bones as though they lay bare.

The cold came slowly to her feet.

Aelfie whimpered, “But Ffraid…”

“Keep it down, you!” Ffraid spat. “Kraaia!”

Kraaia hurried to stand, head-​down, with the stupefied docility of the abruptly-​woken. She felt the soft pads of her soles flatten as she laid her weight upon her feet. She calculated her center of gravity by the splay of the fine bones.

Ffraid snorted and hustled the girl on into the kitchen ahead of her. Kraaia shuffled towards the nearer door, frustrated by a sense of being left behind, but careful not to lift her feet from the packed dirt.

She called out hoarsely, “But what am I supposed to do?”

“Get in here and light the lamp, first off!”

Kraaia stopped. No one in that house—not even Ffraid herself—could light the candles of the hanging lamp without climbing onto a stool, if not onto the table. Kraaia did not understand why she should be asked to do it when Aelfie was already awake. She did not understand why she should be asked to do anything. She did not even know this girl.

“How am I supposed to do that?” she demanded.

“Hmm, I don’t know,” Ffraid snapped. “With a candle maybe?”

That did it. Ffraid thought she was being cute, did she?

Kraaia shuffled straight up to the oaken chest and pulled the door open. She wrapped her fingers around the brass candlestick and lifted. She glanced back: Ffraid was helping the girl out of her cloak and did not seem to be watching.

Kraaia picked up a fresh new taper—fine and long and costly—and jammed it into the empty socket. Then she shuffled back over to the fire to light it. The crude heft of the candlestick was reassuring—she fancied it was like the weight of a sword in a warrior’s hand. The cold of the metal soaked through the glove-​like numbness of her fingers and into her brassy bones.

She would light those candles so hard.

Kraaia bent carefully, holding her candle high, and pulled out a stool. She would show Ffraid who was cute. She would light those candles so hard, not even the Big Bad Wolf would manage to huff and puff and blow them out again.

She clamped the fingers of her free hand on the edge of the table and lifted her foot. She found the stool by sight and watched as she leaned her weight on the wood: her foot flattening, her toes splaying wide. She commanded them to curl and grip.

“He got a kid on your ma yet?” Ffraid was grumbling at the girl.

Kraaia bent forward and balanced precariously on one foot as she lifted the second. Unable to watch now, she only located the stool when she banged the top of her foot against the edge of the seat: she still had a scintillating sensitivity to raps against her bones.

“God damn him!” Ffraid spat. “What’s the matter with ’em? She ain’t barren, and he sure ain’t. Turn around.”

Kraaia released her grip on the table and slowly straightened. The stool wobbled on the uneven floor, but she held her candle steady.

She held her candle steady.

“You ought to take whatever she’s taking,” Ffraid said darkly. “Wish I knew what it was.”

“I don’t think she’s taking anything,” the girl quavered.

“She better not be! She sure won’t be getting it from me! A woman owes a man at least the one son. Maybe he’d leave you alone then. Kraaia?”

Kraaia looked down, and the girl looked up. Kraaia saw only a pair of wide, dark eyes before the girl recoiled.

The girl recoiled.

“Who is that?” she whimpered.

“That’s my new assistant Kraaia.” After a moment’s pause she added, “It’s just frostbite. It ain’t catchin’. You just going to perch up there like a crested gaby,” she asked Kraaia, “or you going to come down and assist me, or what?”

Kraaia’s scaly cheeks prickled with a flush of indignation. This was the first she had heard of this “assistant” business. She stooped and set the candlestick on the table, then clambered down from the stool, making it totter on its four legs and herself stumble on her own two to land with a jolt of pain. Ffraid held her gaze until she stood straight again.

“Now start getting the ingredients together.”

“What ingredients?” Kraaia gasped.

“The ingredients I taught you about yesterday!”

'The ingredients I taught you about yesterday!'

Kraaia gasped again, outraged beyond words. Yesterday—and every day—Kraaia had been curious about the medicines and treatments Ffraid dispensed, but she had not realized she was supposed to be committing the recipes to memory. And if the girl had come for the reasons Kraaia suspected, she certainly had not yet seen such a recipe prepared.

“Fine!” Ffraid barked. “Then sit down and stay out of my way!”

She charged at Kraaia and scooted her over to the head of the table. She pulled out a stool and pressed Kraaia down onto it as she went by. As she charged back again, she clunked the heavy mortar down before her.

She clunked the heavy mortar down onto the table.

“And you get up there,” she said to the girl. “Now pay attention this time,” she snapped at Kraaia as she went to the herb cupboard.

Kraaia scowled.

“A treatment for retention of the monthly bleeding,” Ffraid announced. “After no more than three months. Root of birthwort,” she began as she returned with a pot of fibrous gray powder. She dumped a small pile onto her cupped palm and held it up to Kraaia’s face for inspection. “Two drams.” She tipped it into the mortar and bustled away, brushing her hand over the back of her arm.

A treatment for retention of the monthly bleeding. Birthwort. Then Kraaia was certain she understood. She was just as certain she had never been taught this recipe. She would not have forgotten.

Kraaia was certain she understood.

“Wormwood,” Ffraid continued, returning with a crinkling handful of dried stems and leaves. “Tops and flowers. Two or three drams.”

She tossed the wormwood into the mortar and growled, “Get going.” When Kraaia only stared at her, she picked up Kraaia’s hand and wrapped her fingers around the pestle.

“Parsley seeds, from the second year flowers,” Ffraid said aloud as she went to fetch them. “Half a dram.”

Kraaia scowled into the bowl as the tiny grains fell in a shower. She prodded at the nest of crackly stems with the bulbed end of the pestle.

“Rue, a pennyweight,” Ffraid said. “Or you can take a dram of willow bark and one of witch hazel, but never rue with willow. You hear?”

Kraaia said nothing, and Ffraid stopped at her side.

“You hear?”

Kraaia muttered, “I hear.”

“Then get to work.”

Ffraid returned to the girl, who had been shivering in silence all this time.

“You remember how to take it?” Ffraid asked her.

'You remember how to take it?'

Kraaia poked the pestle through the stems and leaves and slid it over the gritty powder at the bottom.

“I ’member,” the girl mumbled.

“Then tell me.”

“Half in the night and half in the morning, I ’member.”

“No, you tell me,” Ffraid insisted.

Kraaia lifted the pestle and pressed the dried herbs flat against the stone. Some of the stems crumbled, and others only creaked and flexed, releasing a puff of silvery dust. Tiny flakes of dried petals sifted to the bottom like snow.

Kraaia thought of Osh grinding his pigments in a whirring silence: the reds, the ochres, the sacred blues. Out of dust he would fashion petals and leaves.

“Pour a cup of boilin’ water on the half,” the girl recited, “let steep till cold, and swallow before bed. Same in the morning, upon rising. And if I’m bleeding when I rise, I don’t take the second.”

'And if you take ’em both together?'

“And if you take ’em both together?” Ffraid demanded.

“I bleed to death and die,” the girl whispered.

“In agonies,” Ffraid said, “so don’t get any ideas. There’s easier ways to die, if it comes to that. Kraaia, you done yet?”

Kraaia looked up. She scarcely realized she was supposed to do anything. This night seemed no more real than the pestle in the grip of her numb hand: she felt nothing, she knew only what her eyes could observe. In the bottom of the mortar there remained a bristly thicket of rue and wormwood.

“Get out of my way!” Ffraid groaned.

Kraaia stumbled up from her stool, mortified. “How am I supposed to make a powder of that when I can hardly hold a pestle?”

“You don’t—have to—make a powder,” Ffraid grunted as she smacked and crushed the stone against the stems. “Just break it up so it wets straight through.”

She paused to slide the mortar back to the very edge of the table, and pushed the candle out of the way.

“Lie down, Gith,” she sighed, wearily but not unkindly. “I don’t suppose your dress opens up the front.”

“I… I forgot,” the girl whispered.

“Well, your poor dress is that thin, anyway. But… God grant there won’t be a next time, but if there is, you ’member that.”

Ffraid lowered her head and smacked the pestle into the mortar, grinding the crumbled petals into dust.

“God damn him,” she muttered under her breath. “Making a girl get good at this.

The girl lifted her feet up onto the table top. Her arms and legs shook as her tense body drew itself up to lay itself down, and then it relaxed with a sigh.

Ffraid left the pestle in the mortar and grabbed Kraaia’s wrist. “Come here.”

'Come here.'

Ffraid released her at the tableside and laid her palms flat upon the girl’s belly. She stroked gently up and down, and then her fingers pressed in, sinking deeply into the flesh to knead rounded forms that Kraaia could not see.

“Give me your hand,” Ffraid whispered, an instant before taking it. Kraaia did not have time to pull it away.

Ffraid pressed Kraaia’s fingers into a slight well beneath the skimpy fabric. “Feel that? Her belly button.”

She dragged Kraaia’s hand down farther, and down farther still, until Kraaia felt a jolt as her finger bones struck the arch of the girl’s pelvis.

“Feel that?”

'Feel that?'

Kraaia nodded helplessly.

Ffraid slid Kraaia’s hand upwards, pressing it in deeply. “Now. If she had a full bladder that’s all you’d feel, so you gotter make her go out and pee first.”

Kraaia felt a dull burning where her skin rubbed over the girl’s coarse dress, and a pain in her bones from Ffraid’s hand clenching hers, but she could feel nothing of the girl’s yielding softness. She could only watch as mounds of flesh swelled up around the moving hollow made by her hand.

She could only watch.

Then the moving stopped.

“You feel that?” Ffraid asked. “That’s the top of the womb. It grows upward a little every day. If it’s less than halfway between the belly button and the bone, then it’s all right. If it gets up higher nor halfway, then you have to do something else. And if it gets up higher than the belly button… You don’t let ’em wait that long, that’s all.”

She released Kraaia’s hand and nudged her back with her elbow.

“Get up, then, Gith. Kraaia, you go stand in the corner and don’t look. I have one more ingredient to add.”

Ffraid hefted the mortar onto one hip and carried it to the cupboard. Kraaia shuffled into the opposite corner, scuffing her feet through the dirt, grateful to be gone.

Kraaia shuffled into the opposite corner.

The floor was damp and cold along the walls from melted snow, the air dank as a cellar. Kraaia breathed deeply to dampen the dust in her nose—to deaden the bitter perfume of wormwood and rue.

Behind the open cupboard door Ffraid explained, “That stuff you made won’t do no good without this ingredient I’m addin’. So don’t think like you had anything to do with it, Kraaia, ’cause you don’t even know how yet.”

Kraaia turned towards her with a bleary scowl. She saw only Ffraid’s bare legs beneath the door: her feet dancing lightly on the dirt as she struggled out of sight with the heavy mortar. Kraaia realized only then that Ffraid was not insulting her but absolving her.

Ffraid clunked the mortar down a last time, and Kraaia hurriedly turned her nose back into the corner. She heard Ffraid’s bare feet padding around the table to the girl.

“Here you go. You hide it good. And remember, if you start bleeding or having bad pains right off, don’t take the second dose, and send for me. And don’t be afraid to tell your ma, if it comes to that, honey,” she added warmly. “No matter how bad you think she’ll take it, t’ain’t worth dying over. We’ll find a way out.”

'We'll find a way out.'

The girl was sniffling again—crying perhaps. Kraaia stayed in the shadowy safety of her corner, shielded by her own back, by her own beautiful hair. She listened to the girl pulling on her cloak over her threadbare dress, the back door opening, the first crunching footsteps in the snow, the door closing. She heard Ffraid pull out a stool and sit. She heard an elbow hitting the table as heavily as a knee.

She heard an elbow hitting the table.

Kraaia waited in the corner for a dismissal or a command. She did not have the courage to face Ffraid of her own accord.

Ffraid spoke first, after only a minute or two, but it might have been decades by the sound of her creaking, quavering voice.

“I s’pose you know what that was about.”

She waited.

“Well, don’t you?”

Kraaia mumbled, “I suppose so.”

“Well—t’ain’t easy, Kraaia. Don’t never think it’s easy, or it gets any easier. If it ever comes easy… that’s the day you got to stop.”

Idly Kraaia pushed her finger down onto the pan of Ffraid’s little brass balance on the shelf beside her. Editha had piled the scales with two perfectly matched piles of pine cones, and now one of the pans swung up. Even a fingerweight of Kraaia was too much.

Even a fingerweight of Kraaia was too much.

“I don’t never tell what that last ingredient is,” Ffraid continued. “Not even Aelfie. And that’s why. Every time you got to decide all over again, like it’s the first time.”

Kraaia moved one pine cone to the other pan and tried her finger again.

“What don’t you never mix with willow and witch hazel?” Ffraid asked.

Kraaia lifted her finger and let scales tip. She said softly, “Rue.”


Ffraid grunted. “I knew you’d remember that. Never have to tell you twice. Come here, Kraaia. I’m sorry about the way I treated you just now, but I couldn’t let that poor girl know you didn’t know what you was doing. I wanted you to see. Come here.”

Kraaia turned—a complicated business with her numb feet, involving much stopping and starting and stepping back—and shuffled around the table, head down, safe behind her hair.

Kraaia shuffled around the table.

“Who do you suppose did that to her?” Ffraid prompted.

“I don’t know,” Kraaia mumbled. “Her father, I suppose.”

“No, but I seen some of that too. ’Twas her step-​da did that to her. Married her ma when she wasn’t more than your age. Got hisself a new wife after years and years, and you think that kept him busy for a while?” Ffraid snorted. “Not a month and he was already in Gith’s bed. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Kraaia. You can’t trust a man. Just ’cause you’re a girl, or his sister, or just ’cause he already got a wife, or what have you. The only thing I hain’t never seen is a man taking his own ma.”

“You already did tell me this more than once.”

'You already did tell me this more than once.'

“I know, and that’s why I wanted you to see, ’cause you don’t seem to believe. See what that poor girl is coming to. You can’t trust a man. That’s just the way they’re made. I told you it ain’t natural the way those elves are prowling around you, but hell, it’s the most natural thing under the sun. You’re a pretty girl, and they’re men—”

“They are elves,” Kraaia interrupted.

“Elf-​men! You didn’t see ’em, the way they was sitting all around you, like wolves guarding a carcass, just waiting for me to fall asleep so they could have their feast.”

Ffraid snorted, and Kraaia turned her face away in disgust.

“Nor did I!” Ffraid chuckled wryly to herself. “But I’m telling you, ’t’ain’t natural for a grown man or elf to meet a girl your size and decide after two days he wants to be your Da—”

“He knew me for a lot longer than two days!” Kraaia protested. “He knew me for months! I met him lots of times!”

'And what about that Vash then?'

“And what about that Vash then? He knew you one night and already you’re his special friend?

“Stop saying that!” Kraaia barked.

It was not the words she minded but the way Ffraid pronounced them—the way her lip curled, the way her tongue dripped with sex and sleaze.

“It isn’t fair for you to pick apart Osh’s words like that,” she protested. “He hardly knows how to speak English. He says things that sound crazy all the time—that’s just the way he is.”

'That's just the way he is.'

“Kraaia,” Ffraid said gently, “I know it’s tempting. I know it feels good, getting all that attention from men—”

“It is not attention!

“Hush hush. I know you think they mean well, and you never can be sure till it’s too late. But it ain’t natural, Kraaia, unless you take the one natural explanation. You just got to listen to your bad feelings. Now, you’re a big girl. Almost grown.” She laid her hand on Kraaia’s shoulder and leaned close to whisper earnestly, “You’re almost there! You’ve made it this far without a man—don’t risk it now, honey. You’re a smart, strong girl. You can make something of yourself. And when you’re a woman who can stand on her own—then you can take a man, or not, on your own terms.”

Kraaia shrugged Ffraid’s hand off and turned away. Her eyes fell on the mortar, its deep bowl polished to a hazy smoothness by countless concussions of the pestle.

Only lately was she beginning to see how phallic, how thrust back, how spread, how slick, how heaving, how brutally sexual was so much of everything. Paul’s hand clenching her shoulder, his fingertips stroking the bare nape of her neck or tangling themselves in her hair. Vash’s hands on her wrists, his knees between her knees, flattening her back against the wall with his body. Osh asking her to show him her legs; Osh pulling her nightgown down to bare her breast.

She was beginning to see that there was ugliness even in beautiful things. There was death in petals and leaves.

There was ugliness even in beautiful things.